One of the last 1980s blockbuster musicals, Miss Saigon, has earned its many awards and accolades by marrying a tragic love story with a contemporary, complex war story. Loosely based on Puccini's Madame Butterfly, but set during the Vietnam War, the show became a smash international hit, so it wasn’t that surprising when, in 2017, producer Cameron Mackintosh brought a gritty Miss Saigon revival to Broadway soon after its 25th anniversary.
With this new production set to land in Houston as part of the Mischer Neurosciences Broadway at the Hobby Center season (running May 7-12), CultureMap caught up with actor Anthony Festa, who plays Chris Scott, half of the tragic lovers, to find out how Miss Saigon speaks to 21st-century audiences while remaining true to its musical heart.
The perfect role
In the show, army sergeant Chris meets and falls in love with orphan bar girl Kim shortly before the U.S. evacuation, and then they’re separated. The show jumps through time as Kim has a son and struggles to stay alive, while attempting to find her way back to Chris.
Festa, who saw a touring production of the original Miss Saigon in his mid-teens, found a deep theatrical connection to the story and the morally torn Chris.
“I remember my dad really loving it and saying to me, 'Someday, Chris, [this] is a role for you,'” describes Festa.
While he mostly forgot about his father’s foretelling comment, the show spawned many questions for the teen about Vietnam, the war, and what it meant for the U.S.
“We lost my father ... so he didn’t see me do this role, but I know he would be super proud of his son playing the American GI all over America.”
A timeless love story
Although it's set in the mid-’70s and first premiered in London’s West End in 1989, Festa says that the show holds just as much for audiences now, as we grapple with issues of immigration and stories of refugees. But above all, it is Kim’s (played by his co-star Emily Bautista) story that moves Festa.
“What’s been most powerful and unique for me is watching the journey that Kim takes, how current that is with the empowering of women,” describes Festa. “She’s this young woman who births this child out of love and carries it through three years of God only knows what to give her child a good and happy life. The power of that journey and everything that she goes through brings so much emotion for me when I see her again after it all. I feel like it’s so poignant and so powerful now.”
As for his own character, Festa finds much nuance to tackle in the role.
“I feel he’s a guy who is morally trying to finally do the right thing. I think he’s trying to see everything for the better but always seems to get himself caught up somewhere not so good.”
Of course, one of the traditions of musicals allows characters to put their heart and dilemma into song, sometimes solo songs, and for Festa this comes in the powerful first act number “Why, God, Why?”
“It’s me on stage alone with a cigarette and a little conversation with God," he describes. A great challenge for Festa as an actor, he tries to deliver the core of Chris, and perhaps the eternal questions of war, to the audiences.
“I think it is a beautiful piece, because it becomes a question within himself that builds and builds until he can’t find the answer,” Festa says. “As an actor, I get to experience so many emotions throughout the question. He’s asking two countries: ‘What’s going on, why are we doing this?' By the end of the piece, you can see his heart for a moment for the first time, and then I cover it up for a while. It challenges me.”
The heart of the show
Along with the love story and music, one of the aspects of Miss Saigon everyone remembers is the life-sized helicopter that lands on stage for the evacuation flashback later in the show. Now as iconic as the chandelier in Phantom, the helicopter sometimes represents Miss Saigon as much as the music. When asked, jokingly, if the actors ever felt a bit upstaged by such famous scenic design, he laughed but whorled into praise not just for the helicopter, which he calls a giant robot and uses the pronoun “her,” but for all the artists on stage and off in the mammoth show.
“I could never be jealous of her ever. She’s something special. Everybody I work with on stage is so incredibly special. All of them bring so much heart and soul to their roles that they force me to be there, to be committed. It never becomes about me, but the story we tell as a whole.”
Miss Saigon runs May 7-12 at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby St. For tickets and showtimes, visit the show's site.